Springsteen, Seger, Mellencamp took their cues from Mitch Ryder

By MIK DAVIS,

As we have no new releases this week in this interregnum between 2019 and 2020, we thought it might be a great time to look back at some of the missing links, hidden heroes and underrated heroes of Rock ‘n' Roll. The Unsung.

 

THE UNSUNG: MITCH RYDER

While the soul-filled Detroit wailer only managed three Top 10 hits in his career, Mitch Ryder created a legacy of followers who would be so electrified by his stage presence, his gritty voice and his pure love of Rock ‘n' Roll. When John Mellencamp spelled out everything you needed to know about American Rock ‘n’ Roll, Ryder was right there. When Bob Seger took his Detroit showcase to a national audience, his inspiration was the earthy, revved up propulsive Rock of Ryder. Even Bruce Springsteen makes Ryder's "Devil With A Blue Dress On" a consistent staple of his live sets.

Ryder was, is and will always be Blue Collar Rock ‘n’ Roll. An adolescence devoted to sneaking into the Soul and R&B shows in Detroit blossomed into the young Ryder singing with these same groups. Years later, Ryder would become the first living white inductee into the R&B Hall of Fame.

After a handful of records made with future Four Tops and produced by a church pastor, Ryder caught the attention of Bob Crewe, the co-writer/producer of numerous hits for The Four Seasons. Crewe's label DynoVoice Records logged 21 Top 10 singles between 1965 and 1969. (The DynoVoice Years are the subject of a soon-to-be-released Cherry Red 3CD box "Sockin' It To You" – out February 20).

While recording for Crewe and being a vital part of Detroit's vibrant and thriving music scene, Ryder – not yet 21 – was seen as "manufactured," a label he valiantly fought to separate himself from by not following the trends of the day.

Working with his fierce band The Detroit Wheels for the first three albums, Ryder and the Wheels fly through what will become R&B band standards in 1965-66 before winding down into Pop standards in 1967. The amped-up singles remain on playlists to this day as the amphetamine-paced Marvelettes cover "Too Many Fish In The Sea" carves out a niche for "party" bands like The Fleshtones to follow for years to come.

The swagger of the howling version of The Righteous Brothers’ "Little Latin Lupe Lu" is carried into the brash Velvet Underground, the serpentine strut of the Stooges and even the Pub Rock bands from the UK in the Seventies whose spartan version of American R&B will become a key facet in Punk.

Early Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels created an interesting counterpoint to the changes Pop music was weathering. By covering the songs of the day (The Supremes' "Come See About Me,") they brought further exposure to the panoply of music pouring out of both Motown and its native Detroit. By co-opting regional classics (Rufus Thomas' Memphis classic "Walkin' The Dog") they promoted a union between supercharged Rock N'Roll and the single-based Top 40 music that was taking shape. However, their two biggest hits resonate today.  "Jenny Take a Ride" (arranged from Little Richard's "Jenny Jenny" and Wayne Cochran's "C.C.Rider") first sells the "Michigan" sound in its blend of harmonies and visceral vocals. However, the 1966 single "Devil With A Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly" raised the importance of the molded medley (already a staple among club acts and bands cruising the Frat scene of Sixties' America) to fever pitch by taking Shorty Long's 1964 non-starter and yet another Little Richard quote. While the track remains a party staple today, it remains a test of the most high-energy performers and a testament to the golden era of the single.

After putting Ryder and The Detroit Wheels on the charts, Crewe talked Ryder into going solo in 1967. Ryder's 1967 album "What Now My Love" is an early stab at the "concept" album. With Side One devoted to mellow love songs (the title cut had already been a Top 20 hit for both Sonny & Cher and Herb Alpert,) side two reverted to the Blues/Soul/Party axes. In 1969, Ryder would separate from Crewe's aegis and fly to Memphis to record with Booker T. and The M.G.'s on "The Detroit-Memphis Experiment." Ryder would pay tribute to his friend Otis Redding covering "Direct Me."  Ryder was the last performer to sing with Redding on stage before his untimely death on December 10, 1967.

Along the way, Ryder was afforded a number of opportunities. A longtime friend of Jimi Hendrix, Hendrix played him "Axis: Bold as Love" and announced he was breaking up with the Experience and was interested in a band where Ryder sang lead. At the same time, Ryder was also mentioned as a possible lead singer for Michael Bloomfield's new psychedelic Blues rockers The Electric Flag.

Experiments aside, Ryder returned to Detroit to have another try at solo success with 1971's apropos "Detroit."  Recording with future Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin and future Alice Cooper/Lou Reed guitarist Steve Hunter, Ryder began his long solo journey of reinterpreting Classic Rock for a new audience. Here he puts a thrilling kick to Lou Reed' "Rock N' Roll" which Reed was quoted as saying was superior to the his version with The Velvet Underground. (Reed would also be inspired to use producer Ezrin for 1973's haunting "Berlin" and enlist Hunter for his now-classic live album 1974's "Rock N'Roll Animal.")  

Several years later, Ryder emerged as his own songwriter on 1978's "How I Spent MY Vacation" before kicking off a successful career as a performer in Europe where he was among the first musicians to play both West Germany and Communist East Germany just two years before the end of The Berlin Wall. In the States, he recorded with John Mellencamp in 1983 ("Never Kick A Sleeping Dog.") Following the award-winning autobiography "Devils & Blue Dresses" in 2011, Ryder returned to recording in the States with producer Don Was (2012's "The Promise") and made his first Christmas album in 2018 and true solo album "Detroit Breakout!" in 2019.

While the career of Ryder may not have the consistency of most other artists of his day, he remains a testament to staying power. Still playing the blistering Rock N'Roll/R&B mix of his heyday, Ryder remains an admired performer and interpreter. At a key moment for Rock N'Roll, Mitch Ryder was the catalyst for American audiences to discover the bands that were toiling away in local clubs and dances. After the onslaught of Beatlemania and the British Invasion in 1964, it was Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels in 1965-1967 who successful connected R&B, Blues, and Rock N'Roll into one high-energy sock-it-to-me assault.